Spring has sprung, and some students spent one of the semester’s first sunny days indoors at a Close Reading Series event last Thursday.
Associate Professor of English Felicia Steele discussed Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep,” an author and text unfamiliar to many students.
“I chose this novel because it is the most underread novel in the American canon,” Steele said.
The text is a Jewish-American novel about a Jewish immigrant boy, David Schearl, who finds himself in New York before World War I.
The plot is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, in which Schearl deals with identity issues through experiencing physical abuse from his father, seeing his parents’ destructive marriage, learning the rules of the street and understanding his immigrant peers.
As with every Close Reading Series event, the speaking professor chose a small section of text to closely analyze. A Gentile calender is one of the symbols in the text referenced in the passage chosen by Steele.
Every day, Schearl and his mother peel off a page of the “work-calendar” together. There are black days and red days; the black days are Monday to Saturday, and the red days are Sundays, illustrating the Catholic Sabbath. The red days are also the days when Schearl sees his father and is beaten.
Although these images seem powerful, Steele argues that “the plot is the least of (the text’s) charms.”
Steele argues it is the language with the ability of “capturing the darkest moments of human interaction” that has the most meaning in Roth’s novel.
The passage Steele chose illustrates the chaos that ensues when Schearl drops the milk dipper onto the third rail on a train after a confrontation with his father. It incorporates dialogue as well as parenthetical passages in which the omniscient narrative voice of Schearl competes with voices of the crowd.
Steele defined this technique to unfamiliar students as “heteroglossia,” multiple tongues, or many speakers and ambient noise combined.